Henry Seidel Canby (essay date 1936)
SOURCE: "Estimates of the Dead," in Seven Years' Harvest: Notes on Contemporary Literature, Farrar & Rinehart, 1936, pp. 49-53.
[In the following essay, Canby discusses Rogers in the context of other "homespun philosophers."]
Will Rogers was a fellow of infinite jest, a true Shakespearian clown, who used clowning to savor his philosophy. Yet it was not what he said, or did, but what he stood for in the American scene that seems most interesting.
We Americans have had a long tradition of philosophers in homespun, so long considering the little age of the Republic, and so notable in their day and sometimes after it, as to ask for comment. Homespun in mind they have all been, which means, that whatever the source of their wisdom, its form and pressure were distinctively local to this continent, and many of them have been homely also in speech, self-made in knowledge, and blatantly provincial. Franklin's Poor Richard was our first of note, a small-town sage who repeated the commonplaces of the eighteenth century with a difference that came from shrewd experience in a struggling community. Irving, I have always believed, was satirizing the village wiseacre and know-it-all in his Dutchmen who puffed smoke instead of thinking. But it was Petroleum V. Naseby, Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, and "Hosea Biglow" in which the type finally realized itself, and took on an originality which must be credited to America.
Artemus Ward was certainly the Will Rogers of his day. He had not been a cowboy, was not semi-literate, could not use by nature a dialect so colloquial that the native American recognized in him the fellow who sat every Saturday night on the cracker barrel. And so Artemus hit upon the device of bad spelling to make himself homely. His spellings are often funny, but often absurd, with no possible relation to mispronounciation. Nevertheless they accomplished what he wished, which was to wrap up his quite serious political and social philosophy in wit and humor. If what he said was not funny, the way it was spelled made it seem to be, and so he got readers who never would have been trapped by an English above their own, or ideas that were not offered as a joke.
Mark Twain learned much from him, but did not change the principle, or when he did, lost his audience. "Huck-leberry Finn" is a masterpiece of irony in which a raga-muffin says things which the low-brow American audience would never have taken so readily if spoken with authority and by an educated man. He was addressing a nation with little intellectual self-confidence although a vast certainty in its own judgment. It was a practical nation that had succeeded by rule-of-thumb where every scholar had said that it would fail, and that was terribly shy of abstract ideas except...
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